U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

Few things are worse than mainstream media coverage of education.

Except for that sentence above, which stretches hyperbole beyond credibility.

But that is exactly where the mainstream media finds itself when covering education. Journalists, in their quest to maintain the traditional commitment to “fair and balanced” journalism [1], consistently endorse and perpetuate organizations without credibility (such as NCTQ) and baseless claims (such as cries of “bad” teacher, “bad” teacher certification, and “bad” unions).

With yet another report released by NCTQ, that failure of the mainstream media has been highlighted once again—notably at NPR [2] and Education Week: Study Delivers Failing Grades For Many Programs Training Teachers, Claudio Sanchez and Juana Summers; Alternative Certification Deemed Weak by NCTQ in New Teacher-Prep Report, Stephen Sawchuk; Most Teacher Preparation Falls Short on Strategies for ELLs, NCTQ Finds, Lesli A. Maxwell.

First, the mainstream coverage of NCTQ’s reports remains trapped inside assumed crises that have no basis in fact; NCTQ’s reports and then the media begin with the givens that education suffers under the burden of “bad” teachers, “bad” teacher certification, and “bad” unions. However, at the very least, these claims are disproportional, if not outright erroneous:

  • If we maintain the current context that student achievement is accurately reflected in test scores (and it isn’t), then we must acknowledge that teacher quality (10-15%) and school quality account for only about 20% of that measurement, but “60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty),” as Di Carlo details.
  • If we accept that value-added methods (VAM) can accurately and consistently identify “good” and “bad” teachers (and the evidence is that it cannot) and if we accept the much repeated claim by Chetty et al. that teacher quality can add $50,000 to the lifetime earning potential of a student (and that also is a significantly contested claim, as well as another example of advocacy and media hyperbole since that lifetime earning figure equates to about 1.5-2 tanks of gas per month), the enormity of the claims about “bad” teachers and the urgency expressed about creating and implementing huge and expensive test-based systems to address teacher quality are at best overstated. No rational person would endorse the cost-benefit analysis of such schemes.
  • Finally, claims that teachers unions are primary or significant negative influences on educational quality are powerfully refuted by the historical and current fact that the states in the U.S. with the lowest standardized test scores tend to be those that are right-to-work (non-union) states. Unionization correlates positively with measurable student achievement, in fact, while poverty is the greatest correlation with low measurable student outcomes (for the record, union bashing is a straw man because U.S. public education has a poverty problem, not a union problem).

Next, NCTQ has established a sort of immediate appearance of credibility through three strategies: partnering itself with U.S. News & World Report, garnering significant and influential sources of funding, and bombarding the mainstream media with a series of reports without vetting those reports as is common in traditional scholarship (which slows down and greatly harnesses higher-quality research from reaching the public [3]. But scholars don’t issue press releases, and apparently, journalists respond primarily to press releases instead of conducting investigative journalism [4].)

Finally, once I engaged Sawchuck (EdWeek) and then Summers (NPR) on Twitter, several key aspects of this phenomenon were highlighted. Both journalists argued that their pieces on NCTQ were fair, and even critical—which I will examine below—but even more significant is a comment on Twitter from Summers:

My two reactions to Summers deferring from examining the credibility of NCTQ are, first, to strongly disagree, and second, note that no journalists need to do any real investigative journalism to uncover that NCTQ has no credibility because all of that work has been done already by a number of scholars (see those critiques catalogued here and here).

As disturbing, however, as that stance is, examining carefully the coverage of NCTQ reveals that the mainstream media does in fact endorse NCTQ implicitly (despite claims of impartiality) and also marginalizes the credible critiques of NCTQ.

All three articles (see above) have headlines that establish immediately for any reader that NCTQ’s report is worthy of major media coverage. Next, all three articles have ledes that also present NCTQ positively:

The nation’s teacher-preparation programs have plenty of room for improvement, according to a new report. (Sanchez and Summers)

Alternative-certification programs for preparing teachers suffer from many of the same problems that the National Council on Teacher Quality has identified in traditional, university-based programs, the Washington-based group concludes in a new pilot study. (Sawchuk)

More than 75 percent of elementary teacher-preparation programs are failing when it comes to readying future teachers to work effectively with English-language learners, a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality contends. (Maxwell)

Sanchez and Summers (again, note that Summers argues it isn’t her job to assign credibility to the study) certainly imply that the study is credible by using this language: “The study is a dismal read, given that the U.S. spends more than $6 billion each year to prepare teachers for the classroom.”

The NCTQ study is only a “dismal read” if it is accurate (and it isn’t). NCTQ has been carefully discredited in scholarship (for example, see Fuller here and here) for serious conflicts of interest (Teach For America and KIPP leaders sit on the Advisory Board, for example), for a flawed study design, and for shoddy methodology [5].

So how are credible academic critiques of NCTQ characterized in the journalism that claims not to take evaluative positions?:

When NCTQ released a version of this report last year, it was met with some skepticism among educators and those responsible for preparing teachers. Critics said the advocacy group should have visited individual teacher-prep programs and talked to graduates and students, rather than relying on syllabi. (Sanchez and Summers)

Last year’s inaugural teacher-prep review was immediately rejected by most teacher colleges and, especially, by their main membership body, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Criticism focused on the NCTQ’s tack of reviewing syllabi and other course materials rather than visiting institutions; its use of open-records requests and current students to obtain documents; the complaint that its standards weren’t agreed to by the profession; and the fact that its research products aren’t peer reviewed. Additionally, critics have claimed that the project is ideologically driven, given NCTQ’s role as incubator of an alternative-certification group, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), which received federal funding from the George W. Bush administration.

The latter complaint seems less viable now that the NCTQ has turned its green eyeshade toward alternative-certification programs. (Sawchuk)

“Some skepticism” and “critics” clearly position credible scholarship negatively while maintaining the implied endorsement of NCTQ as an organization and NCTQ’s reports. And while Sawchuk appears to address more directly NCTQ’s lack of credibility, he still marginalizes scholars as “critics” and then in the last paragraph above, simply discounts the criticism [6].

Further in Sawchuk’s piece, the contrast between lacking credibility (NCTQ) and credibility (scholarship discrediting NCTQ) is reduced to a simple misunderstanding and a matter of tone (not substance):

Notably, the report’s introduction this year contains a number of mea culpas regarding the bad blood between the NCTQ and teacher colleges. And Walsh agreed that her group bore some of the blame.

“At times we were a bit arrogant about what it is we think teacher education should be doing,” she said. “Even if we agree to disagree, we can be more respectful.”

Again, this trivializes criticism of NCTQ and further equates NCTQ (an advocacy think tank) with scholarship—while also painting NCTQ as apologetic (despite the organization maintaining its threat of ranking programs whether they cooperate or not; a powerful tool afforded NCTQ because of its media partnership with U.S. News & World Report).

One of my strongest criticisms of teachers is that we far too often allow ourselves to be trapped within traditional calls that we take neutral stances; however, the U.S. needs critical teachers (political teachers) if our public schools are to be a foundation for our democracy.

What I have detailed above is that journalists in the U.S. have bowed to the same call for neutrality, one that cannot be accomplished but can serve as a shield for maintaining the status quo.

The U.S. needs critical journalists, ones who see their job as maintaining a commitment to seeking out and identifying the credibility of things they report. Only those in power benefit when the free press is mostly free of taking to task those in power.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in how the mainstream media fails the education reform debate.

[1] Journalists and teachers share the burden of traditional expectations that they should never be “political,” but taking a neutral stance is, in fact, taking a passive stance endorsing the status quo. In other words, taking a dispassionate pose is a political stance (see The Politics of Calling for No Politics).

[2] See a similar example with NPR’s coverage of “grit.”

[3] See the following in terms of how the mainstream media disproportionately reports on think tank (non-peer reviewed) reports as compared to peer-reviewed and university-based research:

Molnar, A. (2001, April 11). The media and educational research: What we know vs. what the public hears. Milwaukee, WI: Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation. Retrieved from http://epsl.asu.edu/epru/documents/cerai-01-14.htm

Yettick, H. (2009). The research that reaches the public: Who produces the educational research mentioned in the news media? Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/research-that-reaches

[4] I make this claim not as a direct attack on any journalists, but teachers and journalists now experience very similar and negative influences on their ability to conduct their professions. While education reform tends to impeded good teaching, the contracting media market has tended to overburden journalists. As a result of newspapers and magazines disappearing and contracting their staffs, many journalists resort to press-release journalism as a survival technique, similar to teachers teaching to the tests. The conditions of both professions, teaching and journalism, are stark reasons why both teachers and journalists must exert their political selves in their professional work.

[5] As a brief glimpse into NCTQ’s accidental admission of their methodology, in an effort to twist criticism of their practices, this post adds at the end “As one teacher candidate who is working on our office this summer said,” highlighting that anecdote is enough for NCTQ, as long as it matches their advocacy.

[6] Sawchuk fails to recognize that NCTQ is working within a scorched-earth policy as part of the large disaster capitalism driving education reform in the U.S. For a vivid example of how this works, and why NCTQ, TFA, and KIPP benefit once the traditional education system is dismantled, see the events that have occurred since Katrina in New Orleans where the public school system has been replaced by charters schools, many KIPP and many staffed by TFA recruits.

Twitter Truth (and The Onion Gets It Again)

As I have catalogued on this blog and elsewhere, when it comes to education policy, my home state of South Carolina is A Heaping Stumbling-Bumbling Mess of Ineptitude.

And while we have garnered a sort of unwanted but fully warranted 15 minutes of fame by being the repeated source of ridicule for The Daily Show, SC has now achieved what I am calling Twitter Truth through the actions of Governor Nikki Haley, as reported at The Huffington Post:

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) wanted to tout her state’s education reform plan Monday — but it all went horribly wrong.

Here’s what Haley tweeted about the plan:

nikki haley tweet

Haley, or whichever member of her staff posted the tweet, was the victim of Twitter’s 140 character limit. An Instagram photo caption longer than 140 characters in length is cut off mid-sentence, followed by a link to the original post. The full caption makes much more sense than the above tweet:

nikki haley instagram post

The tweet was deleted a few hours after it was posted.

If we put Tweet 1 (clipped by Twitter Truth) together with Tweet 2, we find that Tweet 1 actually makes an accurate commentary on how SC continues to plow the wrong road in our claimed quest for educating the children of SC, a large percentage of whom are living in poverty and suffering the burdens of their racial and language minority statuses.

For the record, “reading coaches” masks that SC has adopted 3rd-grade retention policy based on high-stakes testing, “technology investments” ignores SC’s high poverty rate and that the state needs to invest in hundreds of areas other than making technology vendors wealthy, and “charter schools” fails to note that SC charter schools, as is the case across the U.S., perform about the same and worse than public schools while contributing to the rise in re-segregation.

And with charter schools in mind, let’s be sure to give The Onion its due, once again; this time for New Charter School Lottery System Gives Each Applicant White Pill, Enrolls Whoever Left Standing:

NEW YORK—Introducing key changes to the lottery system that governs the admissions process, the New York City Charter School Center notified potential students this week that openings will now be filled by randomly distributing white pills to applicants and enrolling those left standing.

In place of the existing electronic lottery system conducted in the spring, education officials explained that applicants would receive identical white pills, among them a small number of innocuous placebos corresponding to the amount of open spots, and then wait approximately 30 minutes to determine the survivors and new charter school enrollees.

“With so many deserving students competing for so few spots in the city’s network of high-performing, tuition-free charter schools, our new lottery system ensures that each student is provided with an equal opportunity,” said Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy chain of 22 charter schools, while mixing up a tub of 118 sugar pills and 2,376 pentobarbital capsules to be blindly administered in an upcoming lottery. “Between small class sizes, longer school days, individualized instruction, and superior college admission rates, charters provide amazing opportunities for students who don’t enter a convulsive state, fall into a coma, stop breathing, and cease all bodily functions during the admissions process.” (emphasis added)

“Of course it’s heartbreaking for the families of children who aren’t accepted,” Moskowitz continued, “But seeing the look on parents’ faces when their child is still standing in a room littered with rejected applicants is priceless. They know their child is going to get the best possible education.” [1]

Administrators told reporters that the new quick and relatively painless lottery system is a welcome alternative to the notoriously long and emotional computerized drawings of past years, where all applicants received a random number and were subjected to waiting for many hours before learning whether they would attend a charter school or return to an inferior public school.

Officials confirmed that the innovative selection process has already proved a success, though not without its minor setbacks, in areas of the country where it has already been implemented.

“This year we’re making the pills a little stronger because not all the candidates were weeded out right away,” said Tim Bernard of Thrive Academy in Washington, D.C., a public charter that had 200 elementary school students apply for eight open spots last year. “Some kids would seem fine, we’d extend them an official offer of admission, and then a few days later they’d start hallucinating or slurring their speech. Meanwhile parents are scared sick we’re going to rescind their kids’ offers because too many applicants survived.”

“Luckily, we worked out all the kinks for this year,” Bernard added. “The body removal crews are already assembled outside the auditoriums and ready to go.”

Though charter school officials maintained that the new admissions process is designed fairly, critics claimed many affluent parents have already found ways to exploit the system. For example, after a lottery in Los Angeles ended with a high number of living students, officials discovered that parents had been building up their children’s immunity to the pills by giving them small doses of poison each day, or had hired tutors to help them train their bodies to overcome the effects of the pills. (emphasis added) [2]

Despite these flaws, many parents said they have no doubts about trying to get their child into a charter.

“I went through charter school admissions with my oldest son last year, but after he died I wondered whether it was even worth it to try again with my other kids,” Hoboken, NJ mother Jane Schaal told reporters. “But then my younger daughter got into Achievement First and I knew we made the right decision. There was no way she was going to succeed in public school.”

“Next year we’ll try to get my youngest son into a good elementary school,” Schaal added. “He’s not in kindergarten yet, but even if he’s not accepted to a top-notch charter, it’s a relief knowing that his future will be set.”

This should be really funny, but as with many of their other satires, this piece comes disturbingly close to everything that is wrong with charter schools driven by market forces—a commitment done to children and their families, a process that sacrifices children in very real ways.

[1] Why Sending Your Child to a Charter School Hurts Other Children

[2] Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam:

And even in Layton’s own article, we discover the dark truth beneath the polished sheen of charter school advocacy:

“White students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African American students. Activists in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that the city’s best-performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don’t participate in OneApp, the city’s centralized school enrollment lottery.”

Listening to a Teacher from a “No Excuses” Charter School

Valerie Strauss has raised a key problem with the education reform movement in the U.S.: The central experts in the education system, teachers, are essentially ignored.

I have a long history now of rejecting the charter school movement and the “no excuses” ideology that is driving many charter schools. Because of my position, I have been criticized for not visiting KIPP schools and I have detailed why that falls short against my central point about the racism and classism inherent in “no excuses” ideology.

So I want to offer a connection between my position on charters and “no excuses” with listening to a teacher.

I received an unsolicited email from a teacher who has recently taught in a “no excuses” charter school; this is the teacher’s central point:

Their system does not work. Their philosophy is to teach the kids over extended hours at school. We taught from 8:00-4:00 every day. The teachers have added responsibilities on top of those hours. Then most children went to after school care where they continued teaching and received dinner [1]. Guess what our report card score is? It’s an F.

The children were worn out all the time. The parents expected us to take care of the children no matter what. One day I had a parent not pick up their child and I was expected to stay at school until their parents came for their child. After calling every number I had, no one arrived to pick him up until 7:15 at night.

I have never seen such chaos in all my years of teaching.

Disillusioned, this teacher has moved to a different school, but I find the story and impressions hit on exactly what is wrong with “no excuses” ideologies: the unnecessarily harsh school environments for students and teachers, the remaining disconnect among all the stakeholders, and the inevitable negative consequences of relying on accountability metrics to determine if a school is successful or not.

If you still feel compelled not to listen to me, then at least listen to this teacher.

[1] Please consider this in the context of the teacher’s experience: A Few More Points About Charter Schools And Extended Time

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

The horror of 9/11 in 2001 and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 captured both the 24/7 media attention and cultural consciousness in the U.S.

In the wake of both, however, the impact of disaster capitalism has remained mostly ignored and unchallenged.

This is the U.S. response to 9/11:

Memories, by Ted Rall, Universal UClick

How to monetize and what will the market bear are the guiding ethics of disaster capitalism, which exists seamlessly within the larger ethic of the U.S., capitalism.

Disaster capitalism came to New Orleans in full force in the wake of Katrina, possibly more powerful than a hurricane, in the person of Paul Vallas and his education policy, the Recovery School District.

Career teachers (a significant percentage of the African American middle-class in the city) were fired and public schools were systematically replaced by charter schools and the new pseudo-teacher workforce (mostly young and privileged Teach For America recruits who were transplanted to New Orleans).

Now, less than a decade after Katrina, Lyndsey Layton reports:

With the start of the next school year, the Recovery School District will be the first in the country made up completely of public charter schools, a milestone for New Orleans and a grand experiment in urban education for the nation.

Layton mostly paints this transformation in a positive light, focusing on an idealized view of market forces:

Advocates say the all-charter model empowers parents.

“We’ve reinvented how schools run,” said Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, which promotes and supports charter schools. He is leaving the organization to try to export the model to other cities. “If I am unhappy with service I’m getting in a school, I can pull my kid out and go to another school tomorrow. I don’t have to wait four years for an election cycle so I can vote for one member of a seven-member board that historically has been corrupt.”

By most indicators, school quality and academic progress have improved in Katrina’s aftermath, although it’s difficult to make direct comparisons because the student population changed drastically after the hurricane, with thousands of students not returning.

But this typically rosy but misleading picture of charter schools presents a different kind of evidence than intended, as Mercedes Schneider exposes:

Layton offers no substantial basis for her opinion of “improvement” other than that the schools were “seized” by the state following Katrina.

Certainly school performance scores do not support Layton’s idea of “improvement.” Even with the inflation of the 2013 school performance scores, RSD has no A schools and very few B schools. In fact, almost the entire RSD– which was already approximately 90 percent charters– qualifies as a district of “failing” schools according to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s definition of “failing schools” as C, D, F schools and whose students are eligible for vouchers.

And even in Layton’s own article, we discover the dark truth beneath the polished sheen of charter school advocacy:

White students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African American students. Activists in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that the city’s best-performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don’t participate in OneApp, the city’s centralized school enrollment lottery.

Yes, you see, a rising tide does lift all boats, but we forget to point out that a rising tide has no impact on who sits in what boats after that tide rises (just as we never note that a rising tide drowns those without boats, even those without boats through no fault of their own, because market forces are amoral).

Once again, behind the curtain of charter school propaganda we find that there is nothing about “charterness” that will reform the most corrosive aspects of inequity in U.S. schools, corrosive aspects that are a reflection of inequity in society.

The relabeling of schools as “charter,” in fact, is yet another euphemistic tactic to avoid the racism and classism that dare not be mentioned, much less addressed.

As Andre Perry uncovers about “community engagement” in New Orleans:

What does community engagement mean? In particular, how does community engagement work for a “takeover district?” It doesn’t really.

Community engagement is a euphemism for “how to deal with black folk.”

I never use certain metaphors. Immediately after Katrina and the breeches in the levees, I added “hurricane” to a list that includes “slavery,” “rape” and sometimes “war.” I’ve also become very alert to people who use euphemisms to conveniently rob words of their history and meaning.

Standards of decency should rise above poetic license.

Nevertheless, education reformers look to post-Katrina New Orleans as a model to increase the percentage of charter schools, remove attendance zones, take over failing schools, close schools, dissolve teachers unions and decentralize bureaucratically thick school districts.

I’m constantly asked, “In lieu of a hurricane, what can be done to radically reform school districts?” Hurricane has become the unspoken metaphor or referent that reform strategists muse upon to build apparatuses that can initiate the aforementioned strategies. The turnaround/takeover/portfolio district has evolved to become the hurricane of reformers’ desire. As a result, community engagement has become euphemism for “how to deal with black folk in the aftermath.”

As well, Deborah Meier challenges the same euphemistic use of “urban”:

Even the “urban” has switched its meaning. When the 1955 film appeared, it was a word for low-income city kids. It’s now a euphemism for the “African American,” “Latino” poor. The book The Power of Their Ideas starts with me asking kids what it meant to refer to as “inner city” in preparation for a visit to a largely white college. They got it when I added that Dalton (a rich white school 20 blocks further “into” the city) was not considered inner city. It was a euphemism for another euphemism—ghetto.

In other words, “charter school,” “Recovery School District,” “community engagement,” and “parental empowerment” are euphemisms designed to mask the consequences of disaster capitalism.

Charter schools as a rebranding of public schools into a free market model driven by competition and choice teach us some ignored but urgent lessons:

  • When parents choose segregation, that choice should not be on the public dime.
  • No impoverished children should have to depend on their parents’ choices in order to have equitable opportunities to learn

However, it seems unlikely these lessons will be heeded because in the U.S., the entire public is a distracted Nero as our Rome burns in the form of souvenirs for sell at the 9/11 museum and the eradication of public schools.

It is no longer enough to call the charter school movement a “scam” because the consequences are much higher than that, as Layton also reports:

John White, the state’s superintendent of education, agreed that access to the best schools is not equal in New Orleans, but he said the state is prevented by law from interfering with the Orleans Parish School Board’s operations.

“The claim that there’s an imbalance is right on the money,” White said. “The idea that it’s associated with privilege and high outcomes is right on the money.”

And here, we have idiom that speaks to the truth euphemisms avoid, possibly with the simple change of a preposition, about the money.

SC, Choose OK, Not FL: Failing Students with Failed Policy

What do third-grade retention policies based on reading tests, charter schools, tracking, and parental choice have in common?

First, across the U.S., they all have a great deal of public and political support.

Second, the research base on all of these policies (among many other popular policies) has shown repeatedly that they do more to fail students than to achieve any of the lofty goals advocates claim.

My home state of South Carolina is a typical example of how education policy not grounded in the evidence continues to fail students again and again. For example, charter schools advocacy remains robust and deeply misleading:

We know that choice in education changes lives. We must work together to develop a culture in South Carolina that values education — from our families to funding at the State House. All students deserve access to a high-quality education regardless of their ZIP code, and excellent public charter schools are part of the solution in transforming South Carolina’s future.

This sort of incomplete and distorted advocacy is commonplace in SC, regretfully, but charter schools in SC have reinforced several patterns found across the U.S. but contradictory to the advocacy:

  • Charter schools contribute significantly to the re-segregation of schools, and thus to the exact inequity that plagues schools in high-poverty states such as SC.
  • Students in charter schools have measurable outcomes that are about the same or worse than comparable public schools. I have documented this in SC, but national studies of charter schools have shown that nothing about “charterness” offers advantage to students.
  • Charter schools are the newest version of the school choice movement that depends on emotional appeals to sloganism, “Parents deserve more choices,” and anecdote. Ultimately, however, parental choice has been idealized (many parents can and do make poor choices for children), and school choice remains mostly a neutral to negative influence on educational quality. Charter schools as a mechanism for competition are a distraction from the public good and harm all students, even those who claim they are thriving in selected charter schools. [1]

Charter schools and parental choice—like grade retention and tracking—are politically compelling, but neither effective nor appropriate for the essential problems facing public education.

As well, SC is also seeking to follow Florida’s third-grade retention and reading policies—which have been discredited when reviewed. However, a possible pinpoint of light may be at the end of this accountability-based education reform movement tunnel, as John Thompson details:

Oklahoma’s Republican Legislature overrode the veto of Republican Governor Mary Fallin, and overwhelmingly rejected another cornerstone of Jeb Bush’s corporate reform agenda. The overall vote was 124 to 21….

Oklahoma’s victory over the test and punish approach to 3rd grade reading is a win-win team effort of national importance. The override was due to an unexpected, grassroots uprising started by parents, joined by superintendents and teachers, organized on social media, and assisted by anti- corporate reform educators and our opposite, Stand for Children, as well as Tea Party supporters, and social service providers who are increasingly coming to the rescue of the state’s grossly underfunded schools.

The rise of grade-retention policy shares with the rise of charter schools the powerful and flawed combination of popularity and a solid research base discrediting those policies. Deborah Stipek and Michael Lombardo pose some key points about the need to reject grade-retention policy, points that should guide similar movements against charter schools, tracking, and parental choice:

  • Before policy is implemented, the problem needs to be clearly defined and then the research base on the appropriate policies for that problem must be identified by experts in the field (and not political leaders or policy advocates). If, for example, reading achievement is an identified problem in a state, what do we know about grade retention as a policy solution?

A majority of peer-reviewed studies over the past 30 years have demonstrated that holding students back yields little or no long-term academic benefits and can actually be harmful to students. When improvements in achievement are linked to retention, they are not usually sustained beyond a few years, and there is some evidence for negative effects on self-esteem and emotional well-being.

Moreover, there is compelling evidence that retention can reduce the probability of high school graduation. According to a 2005 review of decades of studies by Nailing Xia and Elizabeth Glennie: “Research has consistently found that retained students are at a higher risk of leaving school earlier, even after controlling for academic performance and other factors such as race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, family background, etc.”

  • Once we establish the problem and the evidence base on the reform, what concept should guide adopting new policy? Again, about retention, Stipek and Lombardo explain: “Instead of giving children the same treatment that failed them the first time, alternative strategies provide different kinds of learning opportunities.” In other words, policies that reinforce or replicate the identified problems must be ended, and then something different needs to be implemented.

If reading achievement is a problem, grade retention guarantees to cause more harm than good.

If public school segregation and student achievement are problems, charter schools actually fuel segregation and offer about the same student achievement (and even worse) as public schools.

If equity of opportunity is a public school problem, tracking creates inequity in schools.

In the current public and political environment that rails against failing schools and failing students, the ugly truth is that public and political support for misguided policy is failing students. Again and again.

Education policy must no longer be a popularity contest driven by sloganism and anecdotes.

If we insist on continuing a commitment to choice, we need to choose the sorts of public school policies that will insure that no child and no parent needs to choose the school best for any child.

In SC and across the U.S., we need to choose Oklahoma, not Florida.

[1] Now that New Orleans has completely replaced the public school system with charter schools, the full picture of the futility of charter schools is being revealed, as Layton explains about the results of the turnover:

White students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African American students. Activists in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that the city’s best-performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don’t participate in OneApp, the city’s centralized school enrollment lottery.

John White, the state’s superintendent of education, agreed that access to the best schools is not equal in New Orleans, but he said the state is prevented by law from interfering with the Orleans Parish School Board’s operations.

“The claim that there’s an imbalance is right on the money,” White said. “The idea that it’s associated with privilege and high outcomes is right on the money.”

Segregation and Charter Schools: A Reader

In The link between charter school expansion and increasing segregation, Iris C. Rotberg highlights that problems exist in both re-segregation of schools in the U.S. and the rise of charter schools as separate and interrelated forces.

Schools in the U.S. are re-segregating, regardless of type—public, private, and charter.

And charter schools are not creating the education reform charter advocates claim, with one failure of the charter movement being segregating students by race and class.

Thus, it is important to focus on the evidence that shows the need to reconsider how to address segregation and the flawed support continuing for expanding charter schools.

Let me offer below a reader for such evidence:

Some key points from Rotberg include the following:

#1. There is a strong link between school choice programs and an increase in student segregation by race, ethnicity, and income….

#2. The risk of segregation is a direct reflection of the design of the school choice program….

#3. Even beyond race, ethnicity, and income, school choice programs result in increased segregation for special education and language-minority students, as well as in increased segregation of students based on religion and culture….

I am not under the illusion that by modifying federal policy on charter schools we would solve the basic problem of segregation. But we could at least eliminate one factor exacerbating it: the federal pressure on states and school districts to proliferate charter schools, even in situations that might lend themselves to increased segregation. Instead of serving as a cheerleader for charter schools, the federal government might instead support diversity in schools and, at the same time, publicize the risks of increased student stratification.

Even apart from the negative effect of increased segregation, justifying federal advocacy of charter school expansion is difficult when there’s no evidence that charter schools, on average, are academically superior to traditional public schools or even that they can be more innovative given the Common Core State Standards and the testing associated with them.

Pulling a Greene: Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform [Redux]

Jay P. Greene, Ph.D., is Endowed Chair and Head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

The Department of Education Reform is heavily funded by Walton money, and it is important to understand that the Walton family (of Walmart) are strong school choice advocates.

In 2011, not long after I published a book challenging school choice through a critical perspective, I warned about the dangers of advocacy for choice in many forms, about the distorting impact of that advocacy on education reform, concluding:

Once again, the caution of evidence - advocacy is the enemy of transparency and truth.

Like medicine, then, education and education reform will continue to fail if placed inside the corrosive dynamics of market forces. Instead, the reform of education must include the expertise of educators who are not bound to advocating for customers, but encouraged, rewarded and praised for offering the public the transparent truth about what faces us and what outcomes are the result of any and every endeavor to provide children the opportunity to learn as a member of a free and empowered people.

Education “miracles” do not exist and market forces are neither perfect nor universal silver bullets for any problem – these are conclusions made when we are free of the limitations of advocacy and dedicated to the truth, even when it challenges our beliefs.

Think tanks have agendas, and when the advocacy commitments of those think tanks supersede the pursuit of knowledge, those think tanks lose credibility. Increasingly, market forces have impinged upon the wall between advocacy and the pursuit of knowledge in university-based research, once the domain of higher education. The Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, now, functions more like a think tank (pro school choice) than a graduate department dedicated to dispassionate research.

And thus, as chair and head of the department we have Greene, lamenting the negative consequences of high-stakes testing on the prospects of expanding the school choice agenda:

First, testing requirements hurt choice because test results fail to capture most of the benefits produced by choice schools.

What is stunning (not) is that Greene is now raising the exact same caution public school advocates have been acknowledging since the early 1980s when the high-stakes accountability movement built on standards and testing began: In fact, yes, high-stakes testing data are incredibly limited in what they reveal and that data also mask many outstanding effects of all types of schooling while perpetuating some of the worst aspects of education practices reflecting social inequities (since high-stakes standardized tests remain biased by race, class, and gender).

What we have in this blog from Greene, then, is “pulling a Greene”: Raising a red flag only when a policy or practice impacts negatively the agenda for which you advocate, but not when the policy or practice impacts negatively the agenda of others.

It is no conspiracy theory to recognize that the entire accountability era begun under Ronald Reagan was in part designed to discredit public education so that the U.S. public would (finally) be more open to school choice. Gerald Holton (2003) and Gerald Bracey (2003) have exposed the advocacy aspect of “A Nation at Risk,” documenting the direct connection between accountability of public schools and seeking to expand school choice. As Holton revealed:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.

Now that bit of political manipulation has come home to roost, and thus we have Greene lamenting the negative consequences of high-stakes testing.

Let me add, here, then, that this is just more of the same. School choice advocacy has been a moving target since the 1980s. School choice, now focused mostly on charter schools, has offered a disorienting array of claimed outcomes and spoken to a scattering of nearly every potential stakeholder imaginable—as I detailed, also in 2011, and now include below.

Shifting Talking Points among School Choice Advocates

Few metaphors could be more appropriate than the “invisible hand” for free market forces, and the constantly shifting school choice movement over the past thirty years (paralleling the accountability era spurred by “A Nation at Risk”) reflects how choice advocates are driven by ideology and faith in market forces regardless of evidence.

Lubienski and Weitzel (2008) examine school choice advocacy and offer this key point:

This is a notable possibility in view of the claim that voucher programs have not been shown to harm academic achievement. In fact, the “do no harm” promise is far removed from earlier claims about the potential for vouchers to improve student performance. Over a decade into this reform, some advocates are moving away from optimistic claims about school choice achievement outcomes, and many are instead highlighting parent satisfaction as evidence of success. (p. 484)

In the 1980s and 1990s, before a substantial body of research had emerged, vouchers were heralded as the panacea for a failing public school system [a claim made more recognizable by the growing accountability movement based on high-stakes testing]. Once the shine wore off those lofty claims—since research shows little to no academic gains driven by any choice initiatives—school choice advocates began to change claims and approaches, attempting to stay at least one step ahead of the evidence throughout the process.

The evolution of the school choice advocacy talking points has included the following, in roughly the order in which they surfaced in the advocacy reports by think tanks and the media from the 1980s until 2011:

• Public education is a failure because it is a monopoly, and market forces can and will eradicate the problems posed by a monopoly. Vouchers are the solution to public education failures because they will force public schools to compete with superior private schools.

(Subsequently, vouchers proved to be unpopular with the public, and private schools were revealed to be little different in effectiveness than public schools when student populations were taken into account.) [1]

• No vouchers, then let’s use tuition tax credits. . .

• How about public school choice then. . .?

(See evidence from Milwaukee, Minnesota, and Florida—where widespread choice and choice tied to accountability have neither raised achievement nor actually spurred any real competition.) [2]

• Then, how about charter schools. . .and let’s be sure to address children and families in poverty. . .and parents really are happy when given choice. . .and choice might raise graduation rates. . .

• But vouchers/choice “do no harm”! [3]

• Why would anyone want to deny choice to people in poverty, the same choice that middle- and upper-class people have?

And that is where we stand today in the school choice advocacy discourse. The newest talking points are “do no harm” and that people apposing vouchers want to deny choice to people living in poverty.

And throughout the school choice debate, ironically, the choice advocates shift back and forth about the rigor of research—think tank reports that are pro-choice and the leading school choice researchers tend to avoid peer-review and rail against peer-reviews (usually charging that the reviews are ideological and driven by their funding) while simultaneously using terms such as “objective,” “empirical,” and “econometrics” to give their reports and arguments the appearance of rigor.

But, if anyone makes any effort to scratch beneath the surface of school choice advocacy reports, she/he will find some telling details:

In education, readers should beware of research emanating from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Mackinac Center, the Center for Education Reform, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Paul Peterson group at Harvard, and, soon, the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Arkansas is home to the Walton family, and much Wal-Mart money has already made its way to the University of Arkansas, $300 million in 2002 alone. The new department, to be headed by Jay P. Greene, currently at the Manhattan Institute, will no doubt benefit from the Walton presence. The family’s largesse was estimated to approach $1 billion per year (Hopkins 2004), and before his death in an airplane crash, John Walton was perhaps the nation’s most energetic advocate of school vouchers. (Bracey, 2006, p. xvi) [4]

School choice may, in fact, hold some promises for reforming education since “choice” is central to human agency and empowerment. But the school choice movement and its advocates are the least likely avenues for us ever realizing what school choice has to offer because the advocates are primarily driven by ideology and funding coming from sources that have intentions that have little to do with universal public education for free and empowered people.

And the growing evidence that corporate charter schools as the latest choice mechanism are causing harm—in terms of segregation and stratification of student populations—is cause for alarm for all people along the spectrum of school reform and school choice. [5]

If a school choice advocate sticks to the talking-points script and will not acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that out-of-school factors determine student outcomes, that evidence is mounting that choice stratifies schools, and that evidence onhow school is delivered (public, private, charter) is mixed and similar among all types of schooling, then that advocate isn’t worth our time and isn’t contributing to a vibrant and open debate that could help move us toward school reform that benefits each student and our larger society.

As a follow up to the points above made in 2011, the entire charter school movement as a mask for the school choice agenda also fails when it begins to seek different conditions for those charter schools than those under which public schools must function. Greene’s point about standardized tests applies to all types of schooling, but to suggest standardized tests are a problem only if they impede the spread of choice is as tone deaf as calling for charter schools because schools need less bureaucracy.

So two concluding points:

  1. If standardized test data are harmful for determining educational quality, student achievement, and teacher impact, let’s end the inordinate weight of standardized testing, period. And let’s acknowledge that the past thirty years of high-stakes accountability has misrepresented the quality of public schools and likely inaccurately increased public support for school choice.
  2. If charter schools are a compelling option because they allow schools relief from burdensome bureaucracy, just relieve all public schools from that bureaucracy and then no need for the charter school shuffle.

Neither of the above will be embraced, however, by school choice advocates because they are not seeking education reform; they are seeking a privatized education system.

So expect many more shifting claims from school choice advocates, and at least a few more of those advocates pulling a Greene here and there.

[1] Braun, H., Jenkins, F., & Grigg, W. (2006, July). Comparing private schools and public schools using hierarchical linear modeling. National Center for Educational Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved 28 December 2008 from http://nces.ed.gov/… Lubienski, C., & Lubienski, S. T. (2006). Charter, private, public schools and academic achievement: New evidence from the NAEP mathematics data. Retrieved 28 December 2008 from the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education Web site: http://www.ncspe.org/… Wenglinsky, H. (2007, October). Are private high schools better academically than public high schools? Retrieved 28 December 2008 from the Center for Education Policy Web site: http://www.cep-dc.org/…

[2] Dodenhoff, D. (2007, October). Fixing the Milwaukee public schools: The limits of parent-driven reform. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute Report, 20(8). Thiensville, WI: Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Inc. Retrieved 6 August 2009 from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute Website: http://www.wpri.org/… Witte, J. F., Carlson, D. E., & Lavery, L. (2008, July). Moving on: Why students move between districts under open enrollment. Retrieved 6 August 2009 from the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education Web site: http://www.ncspe.org/… Failed promises: Assessing charter schools in Twin Cities. (2008, November). Minneapolis, MN: Institute on Race and Poverty. Retrieved 6 August 2009 from:http://www.irpumn.org/… Belfield, C. R. (2006, January). The evidence of education vouchers: An application to the Cleveland scholarship and tutoring program. Retrieved 6 August 2009 from the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education Web site: http://www.ncspe.org/… Bell, C. A. (2005, October). All choices created equal?: How good parents select “failing” schools. Retrieved 6 August 2009 from the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education Web site:http://www.ncspe.org/…

[3] Lubienski, C., & Weitzel, P. (2008). The effects of vouchers and private schools in improving academic achievement: A critique of advocacy research. Brigham Young University Law Review (2), 447-485. Retrieved 26 April 2011 fromhttp://lawreview.byu.edu/…

[4] Bracey, G. W. (2006). Reading educational research: How to avoid getting statistically snookered. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

[5] Fuller, E. (2011, April 25). Characteristics of students enrolling in high-performing charter high schools. A “Fuller” Look at Education Issues [blog]. Retrieved 26 April 2011 from http://fullerlook.wordpress.com/… Miron, G., Urschel, J. L., Mathis, W, J., & Tornquist, E. (2010). Schools without Diversity: Education management organizations, charter schools and the demographic stratification of the American school system. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved 26 April 2011 from http://epicpolicy.org/… Miron, G., Urschel, J. L., & Saxton, N. (2011, March). What makes KIPP work?: A study of student characteristics, attrition, and school finance. Teachers College, Columbia University. National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. Retrieved 26 April 2011 fromhttp://www.ncspe.org/…  Miron, G. & Urschel, J.L. (2010). Equal or fair? A study of revenues and expenditure in American charter schools. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved 26 April 2011 from http://epicpolicy.org/… Frankenberg, E., Siegel-Hawley, G., Wang, J. (2011) Choice without equity: Charter school segregation. Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 19(1). Retrieved 26 April 2011 from http://epaa.asu.edu/… Baker, B.D. & Ferris, R. (2011). Adding up the spending: Fiscal disparities and philanthropy among New York City charter schools. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved 26 April 2011 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/…

References

Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84 (8), 616-621.

Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A Nation at Risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle Review, 49(33), B13.

Anatomy of Charter School Advocacy

When I wrote Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform in 2011, the acceleration of charter school advocacy hadn’t quite gathered the momentum that we are experiencing at the end of 2013. If charter school advocacy has proven anything, however, it is that my basic premise has come to fruition:

Once again, the caution of evidence - advocacy is the enemy of transparency and truth.

Like medicine, then, education and education reform will continue to fail if placed inside the corrosive dynamics of market forces. Instead, the reform of education must include the expertise of educators who are not bound to advocating for customers, but encouraged, rewarded and praised for offering the public the transparent truth about what faces us and what outcomes are the result of any and every endeavor to provide children the opportunity to learn as a member of a free and empowered people.

Education “miracles” do not exist and market forces are neither perfect nor universal silver bullets for any problem – these are conclusions made when we are free of the limitations of advocacy and dedicated to the truth, even when it challenges our beliefs.

Data-driven analysis confronting charter school advocacy, then, tends to spur fairly predictable responses from those advocates. For example, when a charter advocacy group in South Carolina called for greater funding and support for charter schools, I offered an analysis from two years of data on charter and public schools, showing that charter schools tended to perform about the same and worse than public schools.

My resulting commentary refuting further investment in charter schools in SC has prompted a response that represents everything that is wrong with charter school advocacy.

Wayne Brazell, Superintendent, S.C. Public Charter School District, offers a predictable response, starting with an unrelated swipe at me:

It’s interesting that an education professor working at a private college where the tuition exceeds $40,000 per year has such insight into what is best for public-school parents, as Paul Thomas claims in his Dec. 12 guest column, “Charter schools not a smart investment for S.C.” Charter schools provide a valuable public-school option and operate with fewer resources, maximizing taxpayer investment and increasing innovative practices.

It seems more interesting to highlight that where I teach and what the tuition is at my university have nothing to do with the evidence I offered, but that this response is written by the Superintendent of S.C. Public Charter School District should raise at least some red flags about advocacy trumping a credible look at the evidence.

Next, Brazell offers a cursory nod to the main bulk of evidence in my analysis and then completely misses the point that when similar charter and public schools are compared, charter schools tend to be no different and worse:

While state report cards are an important measure to consider, schools also are rated on federal accountability measures. Eight charter schools received a perfect score of 100 in 2013, while 19 received A’s. With this measure, charters do get similar results to traditional public schools, but use fewer resources in the process.

Notably, Brazell does not refute my analysis, and offers only data from a different type of report card used in SC—not a comparison of like-schools and not a recognition that many public schools also excel under that report card system.

In fact, the SC Public Charter School District for which Brazell is superintendent received a C on that same report card. Wonder why he doesn’t mention that?

But let’s take the logic of this argument and apply it to traditional public schools (TPS): If some TPS achieved perfect scores and A’s on this report card, doesn’t that mean we should draw the same implied conclusion Brazell makes about charter schools? Well, they do, but Brazell makes no mention of that.

In fact, Brazell’s advocacy of charter schools depends on smoke and mirrors, lots of implications. As I have noted, implications and faith in market forces simply aren’t enough.

Instead of advocacy, we need evidence. So please consider what we know about some of the realities connected with charter schools that advocates refuse to acknowledge:

  • Is “charterness” (something unique about charter schools) the key to providing better schools for all? No, see Di Carlo.
  • Do charter schools do the same or more with less when compared to TPS? No, see Baker here and here.
  • Are charter schools part of the rise of re-segregation by class and race in public education? Yes, see here, here, and here. And market forces appear behind that rise.

The evidence is clear: Charter school advocacy is failing the education reform debate in much the same way charter schools are failing students, public education, and the U.S.